Locked in Krista’s gaze, time seemed frozen. Part of my consciousness remained aware of the tumult still churning all around me but it seemed somehow vague and distant. All I could think of was how close I’d been to losing her and how I should have never left her alone. I felt frail and weak beneath the guilt.
The next thing I knew, Krista was standing before me. She smiled lightly and shook her head, her brow raised in concern.
“You’re actually beating yourself up about this, aren’t you?” she said with a hint of surprise.
How does she know what I’m thinking? “No, of course not! I’m just glad you’re OK.”
“Gray, you’re a terrible liar. You think I don’t know you after all these years? You just saved us all from those things, but all you can think about is how it’s your fault they almost got me – does that sound about right?”
I kept up a fairly constant stream of self-deprecation in my mind, but I couldn’t remember her ever calling me out on it before. I opened my mouth to reply, but I was at a loss for words.
“That’s what I thought. Gray, look at me.” She took my hands in hers and continued, “You did what you had to do. Don’t you dare think for a minute that you should have done something differently.”
The sincerity in her eyes reassured me. For a fleeting moment, I felt at peace, but then the gravity of the situation renewed its pull, flooding my mind with questions. How did the wolves even get to this part of the mines? Is it safe to stay here? Is anyone hurt?
Krista caught the sudden shift in my expression and read me like a book “…and now you’ve already moved on to the next thing. Fine, but we’re gonna talk about this more later!” she said playfully. “Come on, let’s have a look.” We both turned to face the rest of the cavern.
Despite the events of the day, I was still caught off guard by the awestricken stares that met me, but there were more pressing matters at hand. Throughout the room, I saw groups of people huddled around the fallen bodies of their loved ones. My heart sank, and the guilt began seeping back in.
Krista, still holding my right hand, squeezed it gently and spoke. “Don’t forget, Gray, this isn’t your fault. You did everything you could for them.”
I nodded along with her words, willing myself to believe them, and continued scanning the room. Just two stations down to the left, a particularly large group of my fellows were gathered around something. I couldn’t see what it was, but then I heard a young boy crying amidst them and knew – Eli.
“Krista, Eli.” I said softly as I motioned to my left. She nodded and we both ran toward the group.
“Let us through” I called our firmly.
Those closest to us looked up with annoyance on their faces but then swiftly parted, giving us a clear path to Eli. He was sobbing uncontrollably. We knelt down beside him, me on his left and Krista on his right. Krista put a hand on his shoulder to comfort him, but his body still shook as he wept bitterly.
“Eli, Eli, what’s wrong?” Krista said in her sweetest voice.
Eli quieted his sobs and looked up, first to Krista then to me. His eyes were bloodshot and swollen. I was struck by the drastic difference in his face. His features seemed to have become long and drawn – void of the life that was there just hours ago. With visible effort, he composed himself as best he could and began to speak in a barely audible voice.
“Everything was fine. My mom and dad were just a few feet away. We were only working for a few hours when this black smoke started coming through a crack in the wall.”
“People started screaming. We heard rumbling coming from the crack, and my mom and dad rushed over. They grabbed me and then we were running as fast as we could.” His voice was becoming more urgent now.
“I looked back and saw the wolves running at us. Somehow, we made it back to the cart and started it back up the shaft. We thought we were safe but then two of them jumped into the cart. My dad tried to fight them off, but they killed him before we made it back.” Eli’s voice quivered.
“My mom pushed me out of the cart and told me to run. I didn’t want to leave her!” He was almost shouting now with tears streaming down his face. “I didn’t want to leave, but I ran and now she’s dead! SHE’S DEAD!” He slammed his fists to the ground over and over. “THEY’RE DEAD AND IT’S MY FAULT!!!”
I couldn’t make out anything else Eli said, but I understood, just the same. His parents were killed right before his eyes. I had only just met them earlier today. I promised them I would try to find a way out of here, and instead they had died and their son was left alone. I placed my hand on his other shoulder and summoned what I hoped to be a calming voice.
“Eli…I’m sorry about your parents. There’s nothing I can say to make it better, but I want you to know…you’re not alone.”
Eli looked up at me, his brown eyes still full of bitter tears. Without warning, he cast his arms around my back and clung to me tightly. I wasn’t really sure what to do, but Krista nodded me on. I just held him and let him cry. After a short while, his weeping lessened to sniffles and then stopped. He released his arms, rubbed his eyes, and looked at me.
“You really are trying to find a way out, aren’t you?”
I knew only too well the impossible nature of the proposition – escape from the mines. Earlier today, I’d dared to believe it was possible, but now? The addition of the strange wolf-creatures made escape seem like an outright suicide mission. Even so, I knew that revealing my doubt to Eli now would crush him.
I looked Eli squarely in his wide brown eyes and nodded “yes” to him. Amidst the pain, a glimmer of hope appeared in his gaze. He rose from the ground and motioned behind me.
“I’m not the only one who needs you, Gray” he said nobly. “Thanks for being here for me.”
I nodded to him once more then looked over to Krista, who had apparently not stopped watching him this whole time. She smiled at me sweetly and shook her head.
“What is it?” I said, genuinely unaware.
“So many surprises from you today.”
Even I couldn’t mistake the look on her face for anything other than adoration. My stomach fluttered and my face felt hot for a moment, but I knew now wasn’t the time to let myself revel in elation.
“Let’s finish checking on everyone else. It looks like there are a lot more people hurt.”
Krista looked startled, as if pulled from some pleasant reverie, but she composed herself, nodded quickly, and took my left hand.
As we made our way around the cavern, the story was much the same from everyone we spoke to: strange cracks opened in the walls of the mine shafts and from them issued the thick black smoke and hordes of wolves. Many had been trapped in the shafts, unable to reach their mine carts before being overrun and others were overtaken in the same fashion we were – wolves leaping into the already departed carts. The consensus was that this was how the wolves managed to get back to the main cavern.
Most people we’re still too frightened to speak anything more about the incident, but a few had managed to keep their wits about them. They remarked on the startling intelligence of the creatures, how they seemed to communicate and work together to hijack the carts and reach this station. One man even said it was almost like they had planned the attack.
The very idea of the wolves having planned anything seemed preposterous to me, but the timing of the thing was something I couldn’t ignore. From all the different people we spoke with, my impression was that the attacks had all occurred at around the same time – quite a feat considering there were twenty separate shafts being worked. I shuddered as my mind began to swim with the implications of it all.
If these creatures really are as intelligent as they seem, how much longer until they find a way to reach the station in larger numbers? The immediate threat was gone, but we needed to get everyone out of here as soon as possible.
After awhile longer, we had completed our sweep of the room. In all, twenty-three miners were killed in the attack, many of whom I’d just gotten to know earlier today. Another sixty-two were wounded and eight were still unaccounted for. The most notable among them was Ethan, but the missing also included Les and his two cronies – no doubt they’d made a run for it and left everyone else to fend for themselves.
The Guard had not escaped without casualties either. Eleven were dead, including their newly appointed “leader” Fontaine. Wrong though it was, I chuckled to myself, “I guess the wolves didn’t like his accent either!” Another eighteen were wounded, leaving their number at only twenty-one able bodied men.
Once again, they were huddled in a panic near the bridge, undoubtedly discussing the fact that they were now dangerously outnumbered. A growing sense of urgency churned within – we needed to act fast. I was fairly certain I could handle the remaining Guardsmen on my own. Their continual nervous glances in my direction told me they, too, were considering this possibility.
Despite their weakened state, though, they were still blocking the only exit, batons firmly in hand. I wasn’t about to risk losing any more of my fellows in a hastily executed lunge for freedom. For the time being it appeared the only thing to do was wait. I turned to Krista to talk out my thoughts.
“I think we need to get everyone back to the barracks as quickly as we can. Those wolves aren’t going to give up so easily.”
“But the Guard are still blocking the exit. We can’t just walk by them.” Replied Krista.
“I know…still, having everyone so spread out makes me nervous. I don’t know how the crack at the back of the shaft opened so quickly, but what if those things can get here the same way? I think we should at least gather our group together away from the walls.”
“OK. You take the left side, and ask everyone to come to the front center. Just stay as far from the cart stations and walls as possible without agitating the Guard. I’ll take the right side, just in case anything does start coming out of the walls.”
Krista nodded in and started off to the left of the cavern. As soon as she looked up, though, she stopped abruptly in her tracks, grabbed my shoulder and turned me toward the bridge – one of the Guardsmen was approaching…alone.
At first, I was at a complete loss. Fair fights were definitely not something the Guard typically came looking for and, after my little light show earlier, they were all clearly terrified of me. Why on earth would only one come straight for me? As he drew nearer, though, I recognized him as the Guardsman I had saved from the wolf-creature. He holstered his baton and raised his hands to show he meant no harm.
“Gray, isn’t it?” the man shouted across the closing distance between us.
Peaceful or not, I’d learned better than to trust a Guardsman any further than I could throw him – as I’d discovered with Jonas, however, that distance had apparently grown by a fair margin in the last day, so I decided to take my chances.
“What the hell?” I mumbled to myself. “Yeah, I’m Gray,” I answered back. “What do you want?” My eyes watched warily as he advanced.
“To thank you for saving me earlier.” He was nearly close enough to touch now. I instinctively positioned myself between him and Krista. “And to ask a favor of you.” He stopped just a few feet in front of me, hands still raised.
“What?!” I exclaimed. I was beside myself in disbelief. “Just because I saved you earlier doesn’t mean I like you! I suppose you’re going to tell me you never joined in the fun while Jonas hurt Krista or beat any of the rest of us? I suggest you turn your sorry ass around before I start to regret saving it!”
The sapphire glow was already beginning to flow through my veins again and a stony scowl was upon my face. I clenched my jaw in anger, tightening my cheek muscles in warning. I meant business and this moron was going to understand that one way or another.
The man stuttered abruptly back several steps, raising his arms as if ready to cover his face. “Whoa! Let’s not get hasty! I’m sorry for the things Jonas and the others did to your friends, but I swear I never took part in any of it – I thought it was sick.”
I lightened my expression slightly but still bored into him with my cold gray eyes. “Alright then. Let’s hear it.”
The man relaxed his stance and began. “Look, we don’t know what those things are any more than you do – none of us has ever seen anything like them! All we know is that you’re the only one here who seems to have any chance of warding them off.”
“We received word from another Guard installment past your barracks a short while ago and they were attacked as well. The worst news is, they’ve been cut off from the rest of the mines. They’ve blocked the wolves off at the security gate on the far end of the corridor, but they’re not sure how long it will hold. If they break through, they’ll cut off our only route back to the command center and have us trapped here.”
My heart sank. The grave seriousness in his expression told me he was telling the truth. Even a few hours ago, the idea of working together with the Guard was unthinkable, and yet, now, there was no other option.
“What do you want me to do?”
“We need to get everyone moving down the corridor as quickly as possible so we can seal off this cavern in case the wolves try to come through again. Round up your people and tell them to follow our men across the bridge. A few others will stay behind with me to bring up the rear and help you as best we can.”
Well, how about that? The lousy Purplecoat read my mind.
I nodded in the affirmative with a slight smirk and turned to start around the cavern.
“Oh, and Gray…” I turned to face him again. “I’m Reg, in case you need me.” He extended his hand tentatively.
I considered his gesture for a moment, but then looked back up at him without extending my hand in return. “Thanks, Reg,” I said firmly, “but trust isn’t something I give out easily. I’ll be watching you.”
“Fair enough,” Reg replied calmly as he lowered his hand. “Thanks for your help, Gray.” With that, he turned to rejoin the rest of the Guard.
I leaned over to Krista as I watched Reg walk away. “Do you think we can trust him?”
“I think so.” She replied. “He was telling the truth, Gray – about not having done anything to me.” She turned to face me. “I think he’s OK.” She glanced around the room at our fellows then looked back at me. “We should get going, though. We may not have much time.”
“OK, let’s go…and Krista,” I softened my tone, “please be careful.”
“I will.” With that she was off, rounding the left side of the cave.
I started down the right side, and as expected, most of my fellows were very skeptical about trusting the Guard. Now though, at least, I could tell they did trust me. Group by group, they made their way toward the suspension bridge and out of sight. I kept a close eye on the Guard all the while, but they stayed true to Reg’s word, leading the miners out – some even helped with the wounded.
As I went, I searched the faces for Ethan, but he was still nowhere to be seen. I started to worry but pressed on until I met Krista near one of the center stations at the back of the cavern.
“Well, that’s everyone,” she said.
“Have you seen Ethan anywhere?” I asked.
“Come to think of it, no. Why?”
“I haven’t seen him since we got back from the shaft. I hope he’s OK.”
Krista’s brow softened. “I know he’s old, Gray, but he’s also smart. If I know Ethan he’s probably managed to sneak past the Guard back to the barracks already.”
Her words comforted me. “You’re probably right”, I said. “Let’s get across that bridge. There’s no telling when those damn things will…”
The dull purple light of the lanterns above flickered uneasily. Dust and debris shook loose from the ceiling and fell to the floor with a light patter. A low rumbling sound was emanating from behind the wall at the right of the cavern. It grew steadily louder, and then, to my horror, several cracks opened in the rock, thick black smoke seeping from each.
I turned to Krista in haste. “Grab on to me!”
“I won’t risk losing you! Grab on!”
She flung her arms around my neck and back and clung tightly against my chest. In an instant, the blue light was flowing through me and enveloped us both. I lifted Krista easily, cradling her in my arms, and then I was sprinting toward the bridge.
The miners and Guardsmen who were still waiting to cross turned to see what was going on, looks of bewilderment written on their faces.
“RUN!!!” I yelled across the distance.
We were about half-way across the room when I chanced a look at the right wall. The cracks were growing larger by the second, smoke billowing freely from them now. I quickened my pace, but my heart remained steady and calm, as though the extra effort cost me nothing.
As we drew nearer the bridge I shouted, “Reg, get everyone out now! Get to the gate and lock it down!”
I heard some of the miners begin to panic, but Reg and his men kept them moving – he stayed true to his word. In seconds, they were all out of sight and we were closing in fast on the bridge. I looked down and saw Krista’s eyes closed tightly and her face pressed hard against me.
I glanced aside again and saw the first set of menacing purple eyes emerge from one of the cracks. In another second, wolves were pouring out of the walls, hot on our heels. Fear tried to grip me, but I fought it off. The ravenous howling at my back grew more frenzied, but the horrific sounds were soon mixed with the clanging and creaking of the bridge beneath my feet – we were almost there.
I could see the security gate just ahead, shifting right and left rhythmically with my stride. The door was already beginning to close and the wolves were gaining fast. I heard the muffled shouts of my fellows urging me onward. My muscles protesting fiercely and my heart pounding against my chest, but I pushed harder still. Everything in me was focused on getting Krista to safety.
The gate was halfway down and the wolves were nearly on us. With my last bit of strength, I tucked Krista within me, dove forward, and rolled sideways over the threshold. The heavy iron door crashed down behind me not a second later, followed by the sounds of massive bodies crumpling against the metal. Their pained yelps sent a wave of relief over me. I didn’t know for how long, but for the moment, we were safe.